Privacy expert slams Defence over DNA

Defence’s pseudo-mandatory DNA testing of military personnel is a cynical attack on privacy, says Prof Roger Clarke, chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation. Civil Liberties Australia CEO Bill Rowlings calls for urgent analysis of Australian DNA use and the setting up of protocols for sampling, security and access rights.

Privacy expert slams Defence’s DNA extension –
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Privacy expert, Professor Roger Clarke, who is a CLA member, has expressed grave concern about the proposed acquisition of the DNA of military personnel, for the benefit of the military not the personnel.

The move to take samples from Defence people was announced at the end of October 07.

“In one breath, provision is said to be voluntary.  And in the next breath, the statement is made that it is expected that there will be 100% take-up,” Prof Clarke, chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation, said.

“In other words, if people withhold consent, they’ll be ordered to submit.  This is intended to be ‘voluntary’ only in the cynical, military use of the word.”

Although assurances had been given that the uses will be restricted, those assurances were very probably false, Prof Clarke claimed.  Many agencies, within and beyond the Defence community, had all manner of uncontrolled powers to access data and quite probably samples as well.

“Without explicit legislation that over-rides national security, law enforcement, social security, tax and health administration laws, those assurances should be treated as being at least misleading, and probably as intentional misinformation,” he said.

It was also unclear what the costs and benefits were, both to the individuals and to the military.

The likelihood of mass casualties among Australian military personnel was very low because of the professionalism of our armed forces, and the very high value they put on life, especially of Australian military personnel.  So there was very little likelihood of this being of value to the families of servicemen and women.

“Observers could be forgiven for asking whether the real purpose is something else. Possibilities include criminal investigations, medical profiling, a bank of data to be accessed by researchers and statisticians, and a means of ‘softening up’ the  Australian public for the imposition of DNA collection on everyone – on the basis that  what’s good enough for people serving the country in theatres of war is good enough for everyone else as well,” Prof Clarke said.

The Defence announcement is a thickening of the DNA wedge in the Australian Public Service, CLA’s CEO Bill Rowlings said.

“About a year ago, the Australian Federal Police decided to make it mandatory for AFP officers to given DNA samples, allegedly for the purpose of excluding their DNA from crime sites.

“At the same time, the AFP Association (the police union) agreed to allowing AFP recruits – that is, people before they join the AFP – to be required to provide DNA samples,” he said.

Mr Rowlings said that, following the Defence announcement, it was likely that other government departments would be next in line:

  • Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade;
  • Department of Immigration and Citizenship;
  • Customs

… and any department which sent large numbers of people overseas.

“Soon we will have a de facto Australian Public Service DNA database, all achieved without discussion or debate as to guidelines/protocols, storage/security, or access rights/responsibilities.

“It seems to me there is a pressing need for privacy and civil liberties/human rights groups to pay closer combined attention to DNA issues and DNA databases in Australia in 2008,” he said.

CLA has an internship project to work on such issues from December through Feb 2008. We would be grateful if you would keep our project in mind, and email any research papers, comments or announcements through to us.

The researcher is Karlie Brown, who has a BSc majoring in genetics, and is in final year of her Law degree at ANU. Please send any material to her by email

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